In the 1970s, CBS Masterworks made a groundbreaking series of recordings featuring the music of black composers. The nine LPs released all featured the pioneering conductor Paul Freeman. Sony Classical is proud to reissue the complete Black Composer Series in a single original album collection with each CD remastered from the original analogue tapes. The composers featured span several centuries and come from many different backgrounds. A bonus tenth album features Hale Smith’s Symphonic Spirituals, arrangements of 12 spirituals for voice and orchestra originally released by Paul Freeman in 1979. The many superb performers in this collection include the London Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore and Detroit Symphony Orchestras and the Juilliard String Quartet. But is it the composers, many still little known today, who are the true stars of this milestone collection.
In 1974 Columbia Masterworks, in association with the Afro-American Music Opportunities Association, launched a Black Composer Series. Nine LPs eventually appeared, all devoted to mostly world-premiere recordings of works by composers of color spanning nearly two centuries. Apparently no effort was spared to ensure world-class results regarding research, preparation, and performance, and the series met with almost universal critical acclaim. Sony/BMG now brings these recordings together for the first time on CD, transferred from the original multi-track masters and packaged in original jacket format. The collection also includes a no less valuable bonus disc of symphonic spiritual arrangements, highlighted by the late Barbara Jordan’s stirring presence as a narrator. Today Columbia’s mid-1970s sonics sound a bit dry and claustrophobic, yet, if anything, the heightened analytic clarity further underlines the indisputable care and commitment that conductor Paul Freeman brought to these scores.
The earliest-born composers hold fascination in that one would be hard pressed to ascertain their identity without a score card, so to speak. For example, the Guadeloupe-born Parisian Joseph Boulogne Saint-Georges (1745-1799) may have been a younger contemporary of Haydn, yet his attractively tuneful style harks back to an earlier “classicism in embryo” 18th-century style. The Violin Concerto in F-sharp minor by José White Lafitte (1836-1918) was well received at its 1867 Paris premiere, yet the manuscript lay dormant at the Bibliotèque Nationale until musicologist Paul Glass uncovered and edited the score in time for a 1974 New York performance. Lafitte obviously composed the concerto to showcase his own violin virtuosity, which must have been formidable, given the solo part’s flashy yet expressive writing. Aaron Rosand’s warm singing tone and effortless technique make a compelling case for today’s young violin wizards to try their hands at this minor masterpiece.
Composed in 1816, the Requiem Mass by Brazilian composer José Mauricio Nunes Garcia (1767-1830) proves far stronger, more varied, inventive, and dramatic than his relatively inconsistent 1811 Missa Pastoni that appeared some years back on the obscure K. 617 label. Mozart’s influence pervades, most prominently in the Dies irae and the fugal Kyrie (Garcia actually led the Mozart Requiem’s Brazilian premiere in 1819), while the Offertory features two lovely extensive bass solos, sung superbly by Matti Tuloisela.
All of the collection’s 20th century composers (and one late 19th century composer) are represented at their best, although some works appeal more than others. William Grant Still’s loosely-knit Afro-American Symphony and Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s Danse Nègre are charming but dated. Of George Walker’s two major works here, I prefer the Trombone Concerto’s rhythmic unpredictability and pronounced emotional contrasts over the abrasively unmemorable Piano Concerto. By contrast, Olly Wilson’s Akwan for piano, electric piano, and amplified strings (sound clip) conveys more joyful energy and an organically freewheeling style. Perhaps it would have been better to subtitle Ulysses Kay’s “symphonic essay” Markings a ballet ,and that’s a compliment.
A disc given over to works by Panamanian composer Roque Cordero (1917-2008) may be the collection’s prize. Its centerpiece is a substantial and powerful three-movement Violin Concerto, written in 1962 for the New York Philharmonic’s violinist Sanford Allen, who plays the living daylights out of it here. Shades of Alban Berg’s songful serialism may hover over the first movement’s continuous solo/orchestra dialogues, notably in the first movement where shimmering strings support Allen’s cruelly exposed high-register musings. On the other hand, the vigorous finale’s unrelenting double stops have an asymmetric urgency that never lapses into cliché (sound clip). Granted, the coda resembles Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as a tarantella, but it still makes a succinctly pulverizing effect. Terrence McKnight’s introductory essay discusses the Black Composers Series within its historical context, and offers short yet informative composer biographies that zero in on key career milestones. It’s good to have all of this music available again.
– ClassicsToday (Jed Distler)